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An Arthur who wanted to be king
by Thanos Kalamidas
2008-01-11 09:41:26
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One evening, back in the early-80s, I was drinking Yorkshire bitter with a friend in a small local pub somewhere near Huddersfield when the door opened and two men, both of whom looked as though they were ready for a fight, entered. After carefully checking the pub they opened the door for a much shorter man in his mid-fifties with red hair to enter. “Drinks for everybody!” he said and straight away he took out a pack of papers from his coat pocket and added, “You are not miners but you definitely know that it is time to end Maggie!”

It was Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, a sworn enemy of Margaret Thatcher and, in my opinion, the real nemesis of the then Labour Party. The man had a past with British Prime Ministers and he thought that he could repeat the same thing he did with Edward Heath with Margaret Thatcher but the Iron Lady changed his plans.

But let’s start the story from its very beginning. Arthur Scargill, born in 1938 in Yorkshire, son of a miner and known member in Yorkshire of the British Communist party, Harold Scargill. After leaving school at sixteen he joined his father in the mines and soon became politically active joining the young communist league. He became a member of the Labour Party and was one of the first to join the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) and soon after became its Yorkshire leader. During that period Scargill became really popular among the miners with his sometimes hard left lines and his hard work, so in the 1981 elections for president he took a clear 70% of the votes.

Hard union liner, Arthur Scargill believed in more power for the unions inside the Labour Party and that’s the period the party nearly came into full control of the party, but his hard line was extending inside the union as well. His platform was to give more power to union conferences than to executive meetings on the grounds that the former was more democratic. This had great implications for regional relations in the NUM; executive committees gave the same number of votes to a large region such as Yorkshire as it did to a small region such as North Wales. The small regions, with the exception of Kent, were less militant.

Scargill's platform gave greater scope for the approval of militancy within the union. Arthur Scargill was a very controversial figure for the tactics he used, the use of flying pickets in the 1972 and 1974 strikes brought remarkable concessions to the miners and made him the most feared man amongst the British Conservative right. At the time of the miner's strike of 1984, there were allegations that the NUM was helped financially by the Soviet Union; of course, this was never proved.

He was also noted as a fiery and emotional orator with audiences sympathetic to his cause. After the miner's strike he was elected to lifetime Presidency of the NUM by an overwhelming national majority in a very controversial election where some of the alternative candidates claimed that they were given very little time to prepare. His stand for both the future of the mining industry and the communities’ dependent on it and against the policies of the Thatcher Government led to his leadership of the 1984-1985 miners' strike. This ended in a shattering defeat for the miners and saw a split in the union. The strike is generally seen as a major defeat for the National Union of Mineworkers and the trade union movement generally.

The media characterized the 1984-5 action as "Scargill's strike", believing that he had been looking for any excuse to go on strike ever since becoming union president. This portrayal may not be wholly accurate, as the strike began when miners walked out in Yorkshire, rather than when Scargill called for action. The decision not to hold a ballot of members was seen as an erosion of democracy within the union by Scargill, but the role of ballots in decision-making had been made very unclear after its previous leader, Joe Gormley, had ignored two ballots over wage reforms and his decisions had been upheld after appeals to court were made.

That evening in the pub was the first time I had the chance to see and hear Arthur Scargill but not the last. Over the next few years, living in Yorkshire and being a member of the Labour Party myself, I had the chance to see and hear him again and again. Actually, during that period the man was the most hateful and most-loved person in Yorkshire, even more than Margaret Thatcher; in the Iron Lady's case it was not as… personal as it was with Scargill. People liked him or totally hated him. Sorry to say I belonged to the latter.

Arthur Scargill had this arrogant style that only Thatcher had at that time, the sort that said, 'You little people, I know what is best for all of you and I’m doing it.' In his speeches and appearances in public he could be charming, feeling what the crowd wanted and giving it, but if you could examine closer what he was saying you would find out that he was a scary little dictator who did more damage than good to the workers by leading them to hard line decisions that would only profit him personally. Arthur Scargill managed that period to scare the people the Labour party needed most: the average worker with the small income and the hard everyday life. He was the British equivalent of America's Jimmy Hoffa, yet only this one had elegantly nurtured relationships with the USSR rather than the Mafia.

When he became life president of the NUM it was not a surprise for me and when he left the Labour party to create his Socialist Labour Party I have to admit I was happy and not surprised to find out that he was also there as life president - very …socialist, I have to admit! He still runs for general elections in Hartlepool and thankfully he hasn’t been able to be elected. I’m sorry, I cannot see anything heroic about him but I cannot avoid repeatedly seeing this small red-haired man, wearing a Cashmir coat, walking into that pub in the early-80s, accompanied by two macho bodybuilders, to talk about the revolution before leaving in a luxury car with a driver.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-01-11 10:43:32
This intriguing musing on Arthur Scargill brings me back to Ignazio Silone's experience with Soviet Socialism. After the war he enrolled in the Communist party and took a trip to Moscow to see first hand the workers' paradise of Stalin. What he saw convinced him that there is an abyss between true Socialism which is by its nature democratic and a Dictatorship of the proletariat which is tyrannical, and that indeed Socialism is as old as the aspiration of the human heart for justice and decency. The first Christian community in Jerusalem was a socialist community. So Silone resigned from the Communist party and found his way back to his Faith. He was promptly branded a traitor by all the ideologically hard-wired politcal fanatics of Italy's Communist party. That kind of aspersion and political exile gave Silone his true voice. He became one of the greatest novelists of post-war Italy.

Clint2008-01-11 16:02:47
I also lived through those dark days but really back in 1984 Scargill wasn't the brightest of union leaders was he?. Calling a strike in the spring when the country had stockpiles of coal and the whole summer to stockpile more was not the sensible time to challenge the Iron Lady. His other mistake was not to hold a pithead ballot. Following years of unyielding union power control over all previous governments when strikes and picketing were news headlines every night Maggie took them on and won. It was bloody but it needed doing. The devastation to the local communities was awful and regretful but the unions at that time certainly needed controlling, releasing their power over the whole country. In certain parts of the UK she is understandably hated but the country as a whole owes her a debt of gratitude as from her legistation we are no longer blighted by wildcat strikes and secondary picketing. God bless you Maggie. I wonder if she sent him a birthday card!!!

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